Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders: three legendary running backs whose gridiron feats live on in memory. LaDainian Tomlinson idolizes these men and respects their accomplishments. But he won’t stop until he’s better than them, until their records are his and until he eclipses their fame.
LT: legend in the making.
In 2003, just his third NFL season, San Diego Charger LaDainian Tomlinson (LT) rushed for more than 1,500 yards and caught more than 100 passes—something no other NFL running back had ever done. Yet despite these extraordinary accomplishments, the NFL snubbed LT by not picking him to play in the 2004 Pro Bowl.
LT took it as a challenge—a reason to work harder, longer and smarter—to transform his body into a machine. Attacking the weight room, the field and even the stairs in his house, LT became the masked warrior he portrayed in the Nike commercial.
He didn’t do it alone though. LT was guided by Todd Durkin, two-time Personal Trainer of the Year and owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego. With Durkin’s help, LT is quickly becoming unstoppable on the gridiron. In 2004, the recent Texas Christian University graduate extended his streak of more than 1,000 yards rushing to four seasons, helping the Chargers make the playoffs. He also set a record for most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown (12). Oh yeah, LT started for the AFC in the 2005 Pro Bowl.
STACK spoke with Todd Durkin, the man behind the man behind the mask, to learn what it takes to become a running back beast. In an extensive interview, Durkin gave us the goals he set for LT, excerpts from his training regimen and comments on the man and his superb training ethic.
LaDainian Tomlinson’s Off-Season Conditioning Program
Following are excerpts from Day One of LT’s Functional Fitness Program. These are just a few exercises from a single session.
10 MINUTES ON TREADMILL
Movement in space—One set (10 reps) of each movement:
HIGH-KNEES—Jog driving knees up toward chest as high as possible
BUTTKICKS—Jog kicking feet up toward butt in exaggerated motion
A and B SKIPS—(A) Bring knee up, then rapidly kick foot down (B ) Bring knee up, then kick foot out
CARIOCA—Move laterally, rotating hips and bringing one foot in front of, then behind the other
SIDE RUN WITH LEG CROSSOVER—Similar to carioca, but step only in front of, not behind, leg
OVER/UNDER THE FENCE—Walk forward pretending to step over and then under a fence
FRANKENSTEINS—Walk forward with arms out front at shoulder level. Keep legs straight and kick toes to hands
MONSTER WALKS—Put a band around ankles and walk forward with legs spread
LUNGE & ROTATE—Step forward into a lunge and rotate toward front knee
BACKWARD LUNGE & ROTATE—Step backward into a lunge and rotate toward front knee
Stationary in one area—One set (15 seconds or 10 reps) of each movement:
SEAL JACKS—With arms extended in front of chest at shoulder level and feet together, jump spreading legs and swinging arms to the sides. Jump back to starting position.
FLINGS—Same as Seal Jacks, but swing arms across chest, over and under each other with each successive jump.
GATE SWINGS—With hands on knees, feet together and a slight bend in knees, jump and spread legs and push knees out with hands. Jump back to starting position.
POGO HOPS—With toes flexed up, hop rapidly off balls of feet. Keep legs straight.
BODYWEIGHT SQUATS—Squat down until thighs are parallel with the ground. Keep core tight and knees above ankles.
SIDE LUNGES—Step laterally into a side lunge. Keep toes of both feet pointed forward.
REVERSE LUNGES—Step backward into a lunge. Keep front knee above ankle.
SCORPION KICKS—Lie on stomach with arms stretched out to the sides. Rotate hips and kick left foot toward right hand. Repeat to opposite side.
ONE-LEGGED WINDSHIELD WIPERS— Lie on back with arms stretched out to the sides. Kick left foot to right hand across body 10 times. Repeat with opposite side.
Joint integrity using bodyweight—Sometimes we put resistance bands around the ankles when performing these movements:
DIRTY DOGS—Start on hands and knees with toes flexed. Lift knee and foot up and to the side, keeping leg bent at a 90-degree angle. Repeat with opposite leg. X 15
HORSEBACK RIDING—Start on hands and knees with toes flexed. Lift knee and foot up and rotate around as if swinging leg onto a horse. Repeat in opposite direction. Repeat with other leg in both directions. X 10 ON HORSE/10 OFF HORSE, EACH LEG
45-DEGREE STRAIGHT LEG EXTENSION—Start on hands and knees with toes flexed. Extend leg back and up as high as possible at 45-degree angle from body. Repeat opposite side. X 15 EACH LEG
BIRD DOG & ROTATE—Start on hands and knees with right hand placed on back of head. Bring left knee toward chest, then bend and rotate head and elbow down to touch right elbow to left knee. Extend back to starting position, then kick left leg back and up as high as possible. Repeat on opposite side. X 15 PER SIDE
PUSH-UPS (3 HAND POSITIONS)—Perform push-ups with close grip, regular grip and wide grip hand positions. X 15 EACH WAY
SIDE-UPS WITH ROTATION—Lie on side with elbow below shoulder. Lift hips off the ground so only foot and elbow touch the ground. Rotate body so chest faces the ground. Return to starting position. Repeat for opposite side. X 15
PUSH-UPS WITH ROTATION—Perform a push-up, then lift left arm and leg off the ground. Rotate to the left to form a T-position. Balance on right arm and leg. Repeat for opposite side. X 5 EACH SIDE
HORIZONTAL PULL-UPS (WITH FEET ON BALL)—Lie on the ground beneath a bar. Place feet on a physioball and grip the bar with palms facing away from face. Pull chest up to the bar, then return to starting position. X 8 EACH WAY (4 HAND POSITIONS)
SIDE SQUAT (WITH RESISTANCE BANDS ON ANKLES AND WRISTS)—Starting in a squat position, step to the side with right foot followed by left. Stay in squat position, keeping arms extended straight out in front of body. X 15 EACH WAY
Joint integrity with cords or light dumbbells—Perform on a disc with eyes closed if possible:
JOHN TRAVOLTA—Stand with arms elevated in goalpost position and a light dumbbell in each hand. With elbows at shoulder level and shoulder blades pinched, bring right hand down toward left hip and back to starting position. Repeat with left arm. Do not let stationary arm drop. X 10 EACH WAY
IRON CROSS—Stand with arms bent, palms facing chest and elbows out at shoulder level. Extend forearms out into a T-position, hold for a second and then return to starting position. Keep shoulder blades tight and elbows up. X 15 AND HOLD
3-WAY STANDING ROW—With arms extended in front of chest and palms down, bring dumbbells back toward shoulders; keep elbows high and away from lats. Immediately rotate arms so palms are facing each other, and repeat rowing motion. X 5 EACH WAY
SHOULDER CLOCK WORK (2 HAND POSITIONS)—With dumbbells in hand, pinkies touching each other in front of thighs, bring arms up and out wide in a large circle motion above the head. Touch thumbs together, then bring down to starting position in larger circle motion. Rotate arms so palms face each other at the starting position and backs of hands touch above head. X 8 EACH WAY
SPORT CORD SHOULDER INTERNAL/EXTERNAL ROTATION—Attach a sport cord to a pole at stomach level. Stand with cord in hand and a 90-degree bend in arm, forearm across stomach. Rotate forearm away from body against resistance of cord; return to staring position. Repeat. Turn 180 degrees and start with forearm extended away from body. Rotate arm toward body, bring forearm to stomach, return to starting position, repeat. Repeat for opposite arm. X 15 EACH WAY
WALL WORK (3 HAND POSITIONS)—Stand with back 3 to 6 inches away from a wall. Extend arms slightly below shoulder level almost to a T-position. Pinch shoulder blades back as hard as possible. Place backs of hands on the wall and press against the wall as hard as possible for 30 seconds. Rotate arms so the palms of the hands touch the wall and repeat drill. Then face the wall and press the palms of hands against the wall. X 30 SECONDS EACH WAY
Balance conditioning—Perform barefoot and on balance pad if possible:
BALANCE TOUCH FLOOR WITH HOP (BAREFOOT ON PAD)—Stand on one leg with slight bend in knee. Bend at the waist and touch the ground with hands. Opposite leg should extend behind, parallel with back. Return to starting position; hop, stick landing and repeat. X 15 PER LEG
BALANCE REACH FORWARD OVER GOAL LINE (WITH FOOTBALL ON PAD)—Hold a football with both hands. Extend arms and reach out as far as possible; hold for a second. Bring chest toward ground until back is parallel with the ground. X 10 EACH LEG
BALANCE SINGLE-LEG 3-POINT TOUCHES (FORWARD/ SIDEWAYS/BACK AND ON PAD)—Start in a single-leg squat on left foot. Touch toe of right foot in front as far as possible. Bring foot back, then out to the side as far as possible. Finally, bring foot back to the start, then behind as far as possible. Repeat for opposite leg. X 5 ROUND TRIPS
SINGLE-LEG BALANCE ON BOSU (SHOES ON AND DOME DOWN) & SIDELINE CATCH DRILL—Balance on one leg on a Bosu, catch a pass from a partner and throw the ball back while maintaining balance. Partner should be facing the shoulder of down leg 5-10 yards away. X 10 EACH SIDE
PHYSIOBALL HIP EXTENSIONS (WITH MANUAL RESISTANCE)—Place feet on physioball with shoulders on ground. Raise hips off ground. X 15
PHYSIOBALL CRUNCHES—Place feet flat on ground with hips on ball. Perform a crunch. X 25
PHYSIOBALL LATERAL ROLLS—Place back on the ball, feet flat on the ground, hips up and arms extended to the sides. Walk feet laterally and roll your back as far as possible to the side of the ball without falling off. Repeat for opposite side. X 16
BOSU CRUNCH & KICKS—Lay lower back on the Bosu (dome up). Place right foot flat on the ground with a 90-degree bend in knee. Crunch up and bring left knee in toward elbow. Return to starting position and kick left leg out. Repeat for opposite side. X 15 EACH WAY
SIDE-LYING BOSU SIT-UPS (WITH ROTATION)—Lie with oblique placed on the Bosu. Perform a side crunch and rotate chest so it faces the ceiling. X 21 AND HOLD FOR 21 SECONDS
POWER WHEEL (3 EXERCISES)
Strap a power wheel to both ankles and perform 1 set of 15 for each of the following movements:
* Jacknife—Start in push-up position. Bring feet toward hands. Keep legs straight and raise hips.
* Push-up—Perform push-up keeping core tight to maintain balance.
* Jacknife & Push-up—Perform Jacknife followed by Push-up.
PRONE RUNNING MAN (WITH FEET ON PHYSIOBALL & HANDS ON BENCH)—Start in push-up position with hands on a bench and feet on a physioball. Bring left knee toward chest with right foot still on the ball. Drive right knee to chest and kick left leg back on top of the ball. X 20
PRONE RUNNING MAN (WITH KNEE TWIST)—Start in push-up position with hands on a bench and feet on a physioball. Bring left knee toward chest and keep right foot on ball. Rotate left knee under body and to the right as far as possible. Repeat with opposite leg. X 20
PRONE JACKNIFE & PUSH-UP (WITH FEET ON PHYSIOBALL)—Same as Prone Jacknife & Push-up in the Power Wheel, but use a physioball instead. X 10
GLUTE/HAM EXTENSION (WITH ROTATION AND MED BALL THROW)—Use a glute/ham machine and perform an extension. On the way down catch a med ball thrown by a partner standing 3-4 yards away. During next extension, throw the ball back to the partner. Twist to the left or right at the top of the extension. Alternate direction of twist for each rep. X 16
KEISER FUNCTIONAL TRAINER WOOD CHOPS IN DIFFERENT PLANES 1 SET X 15 (3 PLANES)
* Perform chop pulling up from the left foot and to the right above the right shoulder. Repeat for opposite side.
* Perform chop pulling down from the top right above shoulder to left foot. Repeat for opposite side.
* Chop rotationally as if swinging a baseball bat. Repeat for opposite side.
VERTIMAX SQUAT JUMPS—Attach band resistance. Lower into a parallel squat position. Jump as high as possible. Repeat. 3 X 10
LUNGE HOPS (WITH MED BALL TWIST—Start in lunge position with legs split (right foot front, left foot behind). Hold a med ball in both hands extended directly in front of chest. Jump into the air and twist to the right with the ball. Repeat for opposite side. 2 X 20
SKATER PLYOS—Bound to the left off right leg. Land on left foot, bringing right foot behind left and right hand across body. Touch the ground outside left foot. Repeat for opposite side. 2 X 20
SINGLE-LEG LATERAL BOUNDS—Bound laterally to the right off left leg, then to the left off right leg. 2 X 20
BULGARIAN LUNGE HOPS—Place back foot on a bench or box. Put opposite leg in front in lunge position. Rapidly jump in the air. 2 X 10
Foot quickness—Done in weight room:
HIP DISASSOCIATION DRILL—Jump and rapidly swivel hips to the right and then left as far as possible. Keep feet shoulder-width apart. 2 X 10 SECONDS
2 BOSU HIGH-KNEE DRILL (WITH FOOTBALL)—Move laterally, performing high-knees between two Bosu balls three feet apart. Place outside foot on inside of ball and push off moving back to the other side. 2 X 15 SECONDS
5-DOT DRILL (WITH TWIST)—Start with legs spread and feet on the first two dots. Jump forward landing both feet on the center dot; jump forward again spreading legs to land on the next two dots. Jump in place turning 180 degrees. Move back across the dots. 2 X 15 SECONDS
BOSU TOE TAPS (WITH BALL)—Place one foot on the ground and one foot on a Bosu ball. Switch feet rapidly, using quick taps. 2 X 15 SECONDS
BOSU LATERAL HOPS (OUTSIDE HAND PUSHES OFF FLOOR AND BOUND TO OTHER SIDE)—Place left foot on the Bosu ball and right foot to the right of the ball. Hold a football in your left hand. Laterally hop left, switching the football to the right hand in the air; land with left foot on left of ball, left hand on the ground and right foot on ball. Repeat for opposite direction. 2 X 20 SECONDS
Sport specific functional strength & power exercises:
This varies on the day, but the movements are often integrated. We do 2-3 sets of four to eight exercises, keeping the intensity high. Exercise selection depends on what had already been performed at Chargers facility. I do not normally hit the arms; I want his legs and mid-section strong and tremendous stabilization and joint integrity up top.
KEISER AIR RUNNER SPRINTS—Use a Keiser Air Runner to perform a full speed sprint. Keep hips under the body and work on acceleration and power. 3 X 40 YARDS
KEISER AIR RUNNER LEAP FROGS—Use a Keiser Air Runner to work on explosively jumping with both legs like squat jump. 3 X 12 REPS
MULTI-DIRECTIONAL LUNGES—Step into a lunge in five directions. Start at 12 o’clock, 2, 3, 4 and 6 Repeat with opposite leg to 12, 10, 9, 8 and 6. 2 X 20
STRAIGHT LEG DEADLIFTS (ROMANIAN DEADLIFT)—With feet in hip-shoulder width position, barbell in hands with palms facing in, lower the bar from thighs to shins keeping low back tight and pushing hips back. 2 X 15
PHYSIOBALL LEG CURLS—Place heels on physioball and shoulders on ground. Raise hips, making straight line from knees to shoulders. Pull ball in toward butt and raise hips to maintain straight line from knees to shoulders. 2 X 15
PHYSIOBALL DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS—Place feet flat on the ground and shoulders on a physioball. Press dumbbells from chest directly above chest. 3 X 15
KEISER FUNCTIONAL TRAINER SINGLE-ARM ROW & ROTATES—With chest perpendicular to pulley, perform single-arm row, punch and rotate with opposite arm. Repeat for opposite side. 3 X 15
HAND-EYE COORDINATION DRILLS & COMPETITIONS—Perform 3-5 minutes of drills using tennis balls, racquetballs, etc., to work on tracking. We like to have competitions at this point to see who wins.
We do 15 minutes of Optimal Performance Bodywork Manual Techniques for entire body, PNF stretching and deep tissue massage.
LT works on techniques he developed for regeneration things that really open the hip flexors, rotators, chest, feet and hamstrings. We do some rope stretching and self-myofacial release with the foam rollers to help stretch the entire body, recover and maintain health.
Following are excerpts from Day Two of LT’s Functional Fitness Program. These are just a few exercises from a single session.
We normally try to do a speed, agility and quickness session with football drills. Sometimes I’ll have LaDainian perform plyometrics, but it depends on my coaching sessions, mini-camps, schedule, etc. The focus of these sessions is QUALITY, not quantity.
Ladder Drills—Choose five drills and perform each one twice.
ONE FOOT IN EACH LADDER RUNG
TWO FEET IN EACH LADDER RUNG
TWO IN, ONE OUT
TWO OUT, ONE IN
Set up cones 15 yards apart unless specified. Always perform cutting and catching at end of each set. These drills can be performed with or without bands.
BOX DRILL—Set up four cones in the shape of a square. Sprint up one side; cut around cone and shuffle across the top of the square; cut around outside of next cone and backpedal to next cone; cut around last cone and carioca through finish.
CIRCLE DRILL—Set up three cones 3 to 4 yards apart. Sprint to first cone, circle around it and sprint to next cone. Move in linear fashion; always face forward when circling; repeat for each cone.
ZIGZAG DRILL (WITH TWO-OR ONE-LEGGED JUMPS OVER CONES)—Set up five cones in staggered position. Sprint at 45-degree angle to first cone and jump over it three times on one leg; sprint at 45-degree angle to next cone and jump over it three times. Repeat for all five cones.
LATERAL SHUFFLE DRILL—Shuffle laterally between cones.
MECHANICS DRILLS (5 MINUTES)
WALL DRILLS LEG CYCLE
Form running strides (5 minutes):
Run with perfect form
Resisted speed running:
TOWING (WITH HARNESS)—Run with a partner who is pulling against the direction of your sprint, with resisted ropes and sleds. 6 X 30 YARDS
OVERSPEED BUNGEE CORD SPRINTS – Run with a partner pulling in direction of your sprint. 4 X 20 YARDS
Football specific drills:
LT performs running and catching patterns for 15-20 minutes.
Flexibility (15 minutes):
Same as Day One.
Durkin’s Training Goals for LT
- Establish joint integrity/joint tensile strength
- Establish foundational strength (balance and core)
- Improve flexibility (active release technique and PNF stretching)
- Improve balance in the body (accelerators vs. decelerators; posture; synergistic/antagonistic)
- Improve functional strength capabilities
- Establish sound nutritional habits
- Advance balance and core strength
- Advance joint integrity
- Implement specific speed, agility and explosive drills
- Advance specific, fundamental functional strength exercises
- Advance functional strength exercises specific to LT’s needs
- Advance agility, speed and explosive techniques
- Follow flexibility and regeneration principles (massage and bodywork)
- Do advanced fieldwork to simulate game situations (running, cutting, hopping, jumping, slashing with harnesses, parachutes, bungees, vests, etc.)
17 Points About LT and His Workout
- We do a lot of barefoot work during balance exercises. It strengthens the plantar aponeurosis, ankles, calves and lower shank, which is important for balance and speed.
- We don’t lift a lot of weights; he gets that at the Chargers Complex. I am big into the core, joint integrity, speed, agility and functional strength with rotation. We do everything with three different foot positions and three different hand positions.
- We try to use 25-second rests between a lot of our sets, 45 seconds between exercises and about two minutes between each module. It is best to try to simulate game-time situations.
- Joint integrity is crucial for us. I want LaDainian to have as much balance and symmetry among his muscles as possible. Our joint integrity program is designed to focus on his feet and ankles, knees, hips and groin, core, shoulders, elbows and wrists. The program doesn’t guarantee that an athlete will be 100 percent injury-proof, but it sure cuts down on the likelihood of being injured—especially when you are a running back in the NFL and your body is being abused every week.
- Rest and rejuvenation are critical. They allow his body to regenerate, and regeneration is a critical phase of the training program.
- We spend a good deal of time stretching at the end of every workout. Flexibility is critical for LT. We do manual stretching and a type of hands-on bodywork I created called “Optimal Performance Bodywork.” It combines myofasical release, Rolling, deep tissue massage, Feldenkrais and other forms of stretching. We stretch his entire body very good after all workouts.
- LT receives regular massage and body-work. I do all of his structural work and fascial work, but he has a few other therapists too. Rob Latimer is a massage therapist who has worked with him for a while. He does a great job helping LT’s body, relaxing him, flushing out soreness and providing a great overall therapeutic session to help his body recover quicker.
- We do a lot of field work as the season approaches. This is where LT needs to be as a running back; he needs to take his hard-earned efforts from the weight room onto the field.
- When in the weight room, I train LT in an 8′ x 8′ open space the entire time. I don’t need a lot of fancy machines to make him work. We use dumbbells, medicine balls, SPRI cords and bands, balance implements such as bosu balls, airex pads and dyna discs, and my Keiser equipment. We also do some overspeed training on the Woodway treadmills occasionally. But you would be shocked to learn how much we get done and how hard he works without touching a machine. The machines are gravy train for us. He has brought in friends, buddies and former college teammates several times to train with him, and they bow out within 20-30 minutes because of the intensity.
- Nutrition is critical and LT does a great job with his nutritional intake.
- He often does his speed work with an X-Vest on.
- We get in the weight room twice a week and on the field once or twice a week. This is in addition to his reporting two times a week to the Chargers’ facility for weight training.
- LT is a guy who will outwork anyone. I actually have to put the brakes on him sometimes. He’s running hills, doing push-ups and sit-ups all the time, running the steps in his own home for 30 minutes. He doesn’t miss a workout, he’s never late for a workout—he’s a machine. I have had to monitor him closely so he doesn’t overtrain, which can lead to injury.
- LT loves Walter Payton. He has the same work ethic. LT wants to be the best running back of all time, and that is what drives him to work out like a madman. He highly emulates and respects Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, and he loves Walter’s heart and passion. That’s scary!
- You will not find a harder worker, more dedicated, more committed athlete out there than LaDainian. Everything he gets, he deserves. He serves the community, signs every autograph and is thankful and appreciative of all the opportunities God gave him.
- LT is truly a once-in-a-lifetime athlete who blends unbelievable talent, extraordinary work ethic, a humble attitude, the willingness to be open minded and learn new information and techniques to help his training, and the grit and determination to be the best running back to ever walk, or run, on this planet.
- He just finished his college degree because he promised his mother he would do it. Relentless!